The comic book mausoleum: Devlin Waugh

Retrospective reviews of significant and socially relevant comic book cycles and their adaptations that every fiction fan should immediately consume.

Creators: John Smith, Rory McConville, Sean Phillips, Steve Yeowell, Michael Gaydos, Colin MacNeil, Peter Doherty, Michael Dowling, Ellie De Ville, Steve Potter, Annie Parkhouse, D’Israeli
Publisher: 2000AD/Rebellion (1992-2017)

Pitched by underrated writer John Smith as “Noel Coward meets Arnold Schwarzenegger”, 20 years down the line Devlin Waugh is a character who has stood the test of time both resolutely and sporadically. After his recent resurrection in the Judge Dredd megazine following a 10-year hiatus, fans can perhaps now opt for “Hellboy with the face of Terry Thomas” if they prefer.

Devlin is a freelance exorcist, usually on the books for the Vatican, who resolves all manner of supernatural chicanery with little more than an arid one-liner and a Kem-Kwong death fist through the spine. More interestingly, he is a character who spends approximately one third of his printed life in some sort of depression, funk or tantrum. Retrospectively he slots in nicely in a post-millennial world where a significant proportion of humans suffer with some form of depression and, when compared to the usual line up of binary heroic twerps, this characteristic feels endearing.

One of the delightful things about the curmudgeonly supernatural crusader is that the behind-the-scenes saga is almost as much fun for readers as the narrative itself. The character exerts a spooky but pleasing metaphysical influence over “real life”. Devlin’s central trait is his cantankerousness and the character’s production history has proved unpredictable; Tharg, take note.

To wit, Devlin Waugh is the only character ever to have the gall to top Judge Dredd in popularity in the end-of-year poll (in Dredd’s own publication, for Grudd’s sake) while the character was simultaneously butting heads with Dredd in the same storyline. Regular production glitches loom from the depths like scary mermen. Lettering is printed in different sizes between issues and pages are haphazardly printed in the wrong order. Storylines are blighted by changes of artist (Jock and Ashley Wood are among the casualties) and a previously rejected John Smith character, Eddie Whyteman, is resurrected for a cameo—before being killed again.

Images courtesy of 2000AD/Rebellion

Nefarious incidents of this ilk have contributed to the legend of “The Curse of Devlin Waugh”. Infinitely pleasing for a character cursed in the storyline with a perpetually grinding case of ennui and a dose of vampirism but also a good fit for 2000AD, a publication where the lines between fiction and reality were blurred to start with.

Devlin and his Vatican colleagues (who have their own title, Pussyfoot Five—also good fun) occupy a deeply weird supernatural corner of Judge Dredd’s continuity, and though these foppish occultist types may seem uneasy Dredd-fellows, I think it works out pretty well. As a flamboyant foil for the ever-miserable Judge Dredd, Devlin is right on the money and it certainly adds to the fun as the reader may spot a stray belly-wheel or reference to an old Dredd villain hidden away in the background.

The pitch and tone of Devlin Waugh’s output is varied to say the least. Old-fashioned survival horror (Swimming in Blood and Red Tide) vie with one shot comedy (Brief Encounter), tribal revenge drama (Fetish), epic phantasmagorical apocalypse (Chasing Herod, Reign of Frogs and Sirius Rising) and even a couple of olde-worlde text stories which are both about stalking.

I should point out that variety does not assure quality. Fetish and A Mouthful of Dust are not high points. Muddled art, dull writing and perhaps misjudged settings for the character deliver unedifying, if not totally abortive additions to the canon. Unfortunately, Fetish artist Siku does not do good Devlin, failing to capture the character’s fitful emotional state.

Images courtesy of 2000AD/Rebellion

I was surprised that some fans consider Swimming in Blood his apotheosis. This early foray into Waugh world is a pleasing story, well paced to ease us in and notable for observation of artist Sean Phillips’ changing style with some gritty artwork on display. All in all, it’s a very enjoyable yarn. However, the scenario is hardly original; while we can all enjoy the spectacle of a well-oiled Victorian strongman punching off a vampire’s lower jaw, it’s something of a storytelling cul-de-sac. Obviously, someone (Tharg?) did not agree as Devlin returns to largely the same, slightly hackneyed, prison break scenario for so-so follow up, Red Tide.

Devlin Waugh’s creative peak is clearly the Chasing Herod arc. As usual, Smith throws oodles of fascinating stuff in the mix for this deeply weird story with interesting occult overtones and an ambiguous climax. Steve Yeowell, beloved by fans for his work on Zenith is my favourite Devlin Waugh artist; his stripped down style works equally well for Devlin, capturing his angry, lascivious or just plain bored expressions perfectly.

Gnostic super-preacher the Catechist vies for the scant number of available panels with the enigmatic Doctor Nevermind, the bizarre Jack of Mice, a sexy werewolf and even Devlin’s old mum. With this glut of new characters to contemplate, some like The Cult of the Purple Fist do not even manage an appearance in the narrative, merely cropping up in asides or obscure references.

I recalled the wonderfully named Liquid Peter and the Shaved Boys as major players before recently rereading this stor; it turns out they only get one panel. Perhaps we will get backstories for these chaps at some point, along with the Antipope, Mr Bliss and the rest of Devlin’s tantalising, barely-glimpsed rogues’ gallery.

Images courtesy of 2000AD/Rebellion

The ability to encapsulate what the casual reader can sense as an enticing story line in a single reference or panel, storytelling blood in the water, is one of the things that sets Smith apart from the crowd. He is sometimes compared to Grant Morrison, and there are some similarities, specifically an abundance of purple prose, recurring use of occult themes and an affinity for the peculiar. Some of Smith’s stand out skills such as comprehensive worldbuilding in double-quick time and a penchant for snappy dialogue is occasionally overlooked. Presumably a familiar experience for a man with the world’s most boring name.

I should acknowledge that this story does roll along at a frightful lick. Yes, there are countless characters and perhaps too many ingredients here for those with a mild palate. For those who enjoy a heady brew of sheer invention, perception of depth and good old-fashioned weird shit, this story is tough to beat, and remains one of my favourites to this day.

At the time of publishing, Devlin was mooted as the first openly gay mainstream comic character. Major publishers have dabbled with sexuality in superhero comics via earnest, but generally ill-judged campaigns including mainstream publicity and attendant hoopla.

Unfortunately, the characters chosen to tentatively emerge, blinking, from the fictional closet into the unwavering gaze of a judgemental fanbase have tended to be second-string members of less than notable super-duper teams, possessed of wafer thin characterisation in the first place (Northstar, anyone?). These poor suckers never stood much chance of establishing genuine popularity on their own terms without being defined by their hastily tacked-on sexuality.

Images courtesy of 2000AD/Rebellion

2000AD dealt with this in a reasonably understated way during less enlightened times, creating a notable character, who while very open in his sexual proclivities, manages to exhibit characteristics not determined by his sexuality. In retrospect, some of the stereotypically camp behaviour may seem a tad contrived but Devlin remains an alpha-male, who regularly rips out the spines out of uncivilised Nosferatu while eviscerating dreary human characters with pithy one-liners. Both heroic and craven, pious and belligerent, macho and effete, Devlin is unpredictable and thus hard to put in a box—which, of course, is how it should be.

The character was also ahead of his time in another significant fashion: steroid abuse. Long before Vladimir Putin realised that an army of jacked-up Ivan Dragos was the key to world dominance, Devlin was dabbling with steroids for more cosmetic means: to secure his Olympic gold medal in flower arranging and, of course, maintaining his ripped and utterly ripping physique.

One should mention the brevity of material. All of Devlin’s stories, barring the latest megazine outing, run to only two printed volumes totalling a mere 500 pages (in comics terms, this is a seriously limited output). Contrast this with the perceived depth implied when navigating Smith’s expertly crafted universe: hinted-at-histories of an unseen world, fleeting glances of fascinating villains and an overarching coherence of vision fools us that there must be a much greater volume of story, suggestive of an output to rival Dredd, Sherlock Holmes or The Shadow. But nope, just two volumes. That’s all we get, and when your back catalogue is as spiffing as Devlin’s, perhaps less is more.

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